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Guilford County redistricting committee seeks citizen input

by Jordan Green

A Guilford County redistricting map (above) submitted by Democratic chairman Skip Alston has been described by the county Republican Party as “a contortionists dream.”

A proposed map to redraw the electoral district lines for the Guilford County Commission submitted by its Democratic chairman, Skip Alston, illustrates the axiom about redistricting being about elected officials choosing their voters rather than the other way around.

“We wanted to give the community something to criticize and beat up, or support,” Alston said. “We wanted to put something out there that [citizens] can consider. Get some constructive advice. Nothing’s been set in stone by any means. It can be tweaked.”

The map features meandering, irregular boundary lines and confusing twists and turns. A Republican-leaning, rural, southeastern district similar to the one currently represented by Commissioner Billy Yow travels from Whitsett in the east along the Randolph county line and hooks up through High Point, hugging Eastchester Drive as it curves around a majority-minority district drawn for Democratic Commissioner Bruce Davis. Another High Point district, customized for Republican Commissioner Bill Bencini, picks up conservative-leaning western precincts and then spreads northward to take in part of Oak Ridge, Piedmont Triad International Airport and the New Garden Road area of Greensboro.

Alston said his first criteria was to create plans that would meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, and then to ensure that the populations of each district was balanced. The three proposed maps accomplish both of those goals. Alston said that in drawing the three maps he gave no consideration to party registration in composing the districts. Yet, considering the twists and turns in the maps and the strong partisan lean in almost all the districts, it appears that party registration factors significantly.

Chopping up High Point into three districts — compared to two currently — accommodates a Democratic-leaning northeastern Guilford district similar to the one currently held by Commissioner Kirk Perkins.

Maintaining a deep well of Democrat-rich precincts in this northeastern district is crucial to a strategy of reserving five out of eight seats for Democratic control. Three majority minority districts, which are required by state and federal law, are guaranteed safe seats for Democrats. A fourth district, in Greensboro, also favors a Democratic candidate almost any way you draw it.

Guilford district are critical to maintaining Democratic control on the board. This district appears to the first consideration in the Alston map, along with two created by staff under Alston’s direction, which have been dubbed the Friendly and Market plans. As a result, all three maps push out adjacent districts such that High Point’s representation is fractured.

This overall scheme also benefits Republican commissioners Bill Bencini and Linda Shaw. The so-called “High Point hook” bleeds Democratic voters out to allow Bencini’s High Point district to maintain a distinct Republican lean.

Similarly, the leftover precincts to the west of the proposed northeast district allow Shaw to hold onto conservative Republican strongholds in Summerfield, Oak Ridge and Stokesdale. Shaw lives in the lower eastern corner of her district near Guilford College. Her own precinct leans heavily Democratic. As a Republican, she needs to hold on to the northwestern corner of the county in order to avoid a Democratic challenge in a general election.

One curious outgrowth of the geographic gap between Shaw and her district’s Republican base is a growing tension between the commissioner and the conservative segment of her constituency. A number of political challengers from the Summerfield area, including Sam Spagnola and Don Wendelken, have charged that Shaw is too closely aligned with Alston and the commission’s Democratic majority.

To maintain a strong base of Republican voters for Shaw, the district in Alston’s proposed map draws in Summerfield, Oak Ride and Stokesdale and then tacks on a collection of precincts in west Greensboro where Shaw lives that is connected to the main body only by a narrow pass at Brassfield Shopping Center on Battleground Avenue. Under this proposed map, the Democratic vote in the corridor between Friendly and Battleground avenues would be submerged by heavy GOP registration in the more rural Summerfield area.

The three plans submitted by Alston all provide districts for Shaw, Bencini and Perkins that are so heavily tilted in favor of the incumbents’ respective parties as to discourage the opposing parties from putting up challengers.

To maintain a northeastern Guilford district politically favorable to Perkins, the proposed Road, picking up the Democrat-rich New Irving Park neighborhood. It also includes three majority-black precincts in northeast Greensboro that are a lock for the Democrats.

To accommodate a squeeze created by the northeastern district, a majority-minority district drawn for Commissioner Carolyn Coleman leaps across the railroad tracks into the exclusive, majority-white neighborhood of Irving Park and travels up Battleground Avenue. In doing so, this district cobbles together two disparate constituencies.

The Guilford County Republican Party has dubbed the Alston plan “a contortionist’s dream,” and charged that it “relies on blatant gerrymandering to create districts with bottlenecks that create such partisan advantages that the citizens of Guilford County are disenfranchised by not having a choice after the primaries.”

Guilford County is covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the county to include a number of majorityminority districts proportionate to the nonwhite population. The Voting Rights Act has been blamed for creating contorted and irregular — or “gerrymandered” — redistricting plans. Observers also rightly point out that the practice of drawing maps to avoid placing two incumbents in the same district — or “double bunking” — results in districts that feature strange shapes and irregular lines.

“I did want to make sure that any commissioner that’s on the board doesn’t to compete against each other,” Alston said.

In contrast, plans submitted by the Guilford County Republican Party and GOP activist Keith Brown “double-bunk” Alston with Davis.

Alston has weathered criticism for not disclosing who gave him advice for crafting his proposed redistricting plan. He said he made phone calls and met friends on a golf course to gather input. He said he talked to some sitting commissioners, including Coleman and Democratic at-large representative John Parks, but not all. He said he did not consult with Bill Burckley, a political consultant who acknowledged authorship of a controversial Greensboro City Council redistricting plan submitted by Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, according to an article in the Rhinoceros Times.

“I talked to city council members, state legislators, former commissioners, neighborhood leaders, business leaders,” Alston said. “I tried to do my due diligence. Black, white, young and old.”

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An alternative map demonstrates that the redistricting committee could give each incumbent a unique district, and still create relatively compact districts.

A THIRD WAY

The alternative scenario presented here demonstrates that it is possible to honor the Voting Rights Act requirements to cre- ate three majority-minority districts, avoid double bunking and still draw the remaining five districts in reasonably compact fashion. Under this scenario, the majority-white Greensboro district would lean Democratic, while rural a northwest Guilford district would reliably elect Republican representa- tives and a southeast Guilford district would favor a Republican candidate. Perkins would live in this district. As a Democrat, he would almost certainly face an uphill battle in getting reelected. The district would have been carried by Republicans John McCain for president, Elizabeth Dole for US Senate and Pat McCrory for North Carolina governor in 2008, an election year that overwhelmingly favored Democrats.

The two remaining districts would be fairly competitive while honoring communities of interest and shared geography.

The district drawn around Shaw would travel from the affluent Cardinal through Piedmont Triad International Airport, take in the Adams Farm neighborhood of Greensboro and end up in downtown Jamestown. The district would lean slightly Democratic, but considering that no party holds a majority in registered voters, any successful candidate would have to win over unaffiliated voters. The district would have given Democrat Kay Hagan a nearly 20-percent margin of victory over Dole in the 2008 US Senate race, while delivering 54.6 percent of the vote to residen- tial candidate Barack Obama and 51.7 percent of the vote to gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue, who is, like the president, a Democrat. The white High Point district would curve around its minority counterpart, traveling from West Wendover Avenue down along Eastchester Drive, through Uptowne and Emerywood and the Fairfield Road area. The district would Democratic in voter registration, but with 35.6 percent Republican registration it would be in play. Republican McCain and Democrat Perdue would have garnered the most votes in their respective races, making the district a battleground.

The redistricting committee of the Guilford County Commission will hold a public hearing on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the commissioners meeting room of the Old County Courthouse, located at 301 W. Market St. in Greensboro, to receive public comment

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